Diamond in the Techno-Thriller: The Value of Speculative Fiction

A few years ago, some sort of switch got flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I became far more capable of and willing to plow through half a dozen novels in a single stretch than to finish a single non-fiction book. Recently, equilibrium has been at least somewhat restored, but I continue to find myself immersed in fiction in a way that I rarely was before.

Some recent reading has included a pair of Larry Bond novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vortex and Cauldron. Larry Bond is most famously, of course, the man who helped Tom Clancy game out many of his books’ wartime scenarios (and Bond co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy). I hadn’t known Bond as an author in his own right, but recently read those two works of his in succession.

What’s wonderful about books like these is generally not their literary qualities, but nor is it even the conduct or proposed sequence of events in particular conflicts. Can fiction, in fact, predict the future of warfare? Perhaps, but more interestingly, such books serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were written. Much of the “valued added” from this is detailed (at times overly so) descriptions and explanations of the weaponry, arms systems, and military organization of the era. But furthermore, while not predictive in any meaningful way, these novels can help widen the Overton Window of the imagination, to at least consider a divergent future drastically different from our own.

With books set in the future, but now a dated future, it’s almost like reading alternate history. As of this writing, I’m reading The Third World War: August 1985, which is an account of World War III written in the past tense as a historical survey from the point of view of two years later (e.g., 1987). Of course, the book was actually published in 1979, along with a followup, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which was published two years later and dives deeper into specifics of nuclear postures, the war in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Solidarity’s effect in Poland, and other issues. It is a look at a world that never was, but seemed frightfully close to being so. And from that perspective, it’s a chilling look at the prospective war facing the world of the past.

Obviously, these never came to pass, but when one considers what might have been, that can seem a blessing.

Vortex, published in 1991, is an account of a war in which the truly radical hardcore racists in the Afrikaner government launch a coup by allowing an African National Congress (ANC) plot to destroy the Blue Train carrying much of the senior South African leadership to proceed without interference. Immediately the South African Defence Forces launch an incursion to retake Namibia; meanwhile, Angola and its socialist allies – most notably, the Cubans – begin streaming into Namibia and South Africa to repel the SADF invaders. Also, a civil war breaks out and a heroic American journalist (a white guy, of course) finds himself in the middle of things.

Obviously, reading this book in a post-Apartheid world is a rather different experience than that envisioned by the author. In one set-piece, US forces lead a raid on the Pelindaba nuclear facility; it was a surprise to me how much was known or suspected about South Africa’s nuclear program before the era of Reconciliation. But if nothing else, Vortex lays out in good detail the military forces and equipment available to these regional combatants in the era. Even from a distance, Vortex can also help illuminate the far-off divisions and sectarian struggles of the day – reading about the role of dissatisfied Afrikaners and white Anglophone South Africans in fomenting an anti-right-wing separatism (as well as the differences between the two) points to a split that might have been unknown to the casual reader.

Ralph Peters’ The War in 2020, which I’ve not yet read more than the jacket of, offers a wonderfully ludicrous late 1980s perspective of future war (and I can guarantee that in five years’ time its predictions will not come to pass). The original blurb from Publishers Weekly says it all: “America’s Seventh Cavalry, armed with a surprise electronic weapon, rushes to the aid of the Soviet Union, overrun by a Japanese-supported Islamic army.” So there’s that vision of the future.

Tom Clancy’s relative moderation has still resulted in some geopolitically hilarious post-Cold War plots. The idea of hastily bringing Russia into NATO so as to ship American M1A1 Abrams tanks down the tran-Siberian railroad in order to jointly fight the invading Chinese is perhaps a little outlandish given present geopolitical realities. The merging of Iran and Iraq into a Unified Islamic Republic, following the assassination of Saddam Hussein, at least points out that an Iraqi power vacuum might indeed be filled by Tehran, but the similarities with reality end there.

On the other hand, some of the crazier ideas from the depths of the novelist or screenwriter or video game designer are useful indeed. Clancy is instructive here again. He’s not the only one to have thought it, but was by far the most mainstream author to feature a widebody aircraft used to strike a building, in Debt of Honor. Clear and Present Danger captured, even if unintentionally, the self-defeating nature of US counter-narcotic operations in Latin America. And The Sum of All Fears led to a recasting of the part of Jack Ryan (“just kidding,” says this Harrison Ford partisan).

But this is all a very long-winded introduction to talking about the other Bond novel, Cauldron. In this, a post-Cold War European Union is stillborn as the Western powers turn inwards and establish restrictive tariffs and other fiscally illiberal measures. Somewhere along the way, NATO collapses and is dissolved. Instead, a joint Franco-German diktat names itself “the European Confederation (EurCon)” and begins calls the shots in Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, where cut-rate EuroCopter plants are established with the DGSE running things from behind the scenes. All this comes to a head when a few nations – particularly Poland – refuse to join EurCon, and in response, EurCon cuts off gas shipments in coordination with Russia (hmmm…). The United States commits to supplying Poland, EurCon attempts to stop them, and before you know it, German tanks are yet again rolling towards Gdansk. Only this time, under supreme French command

The Franco-German leadership of Europe is a reality even today. But the tables are turned, with relative hardliners in Germany threatening the sanctity of the European project for…what, exactly? Euros? To “send a message” to those spendthrift Greeks? In Cauldron, France is the military power and Germany the economic one (relatively). Bond certainly nailed that reality, only he underestimated the primacy of the dollar/deutschemark/euro in the free trader’s paradise that is today.

We live in one of many possible worlds; it could always be worse. Or better.

I am reminded of a story from a previous job (and which predates my work there), in which wargames were being pitched to a customer along the lines of a number of scenarios. One stood out, which had had a lot of thought put into it, but was rejected as being “too outlandish.” That scenario? A Crimean War Redux in which Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula.

Thinking the unthinkable is truly a job for not just the fiction writer, but for everyone. And there is a wide swath of good thinkers producing interesting novels today. Daniel Suarez’s Daemon series, Pressfield’s The Profession, the inescapable Ghost Fleet by August Cole and P.W. Singer (and if reviews of the latter are any indication, it is indeed a must-read) – all at the very least encourage their readers to grapple with the ideas within, even if just to call “bullshit” on them.

The worst mistake we can make is assuming that trends will progress unabated, and that the world of the future will look like now, only slightly more advanced. That’s an easier scene to envision. It’s harder to conjure up or flesh out those moments and events and technologies that will throw us off our current trajectory. And what’s even more difficult is trying to predict where we then might land.

The important thing, though, is to try.

What-If, What-Could, What Might-Have-Been

Cass Sunstein has a review in The New Republic of Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Evans is, to put it mildly, not a great fan of the counterfactual exercise in history, particularly as engaged in by historians.

With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally uselesspossibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

There is a long and treasured strand of anti-counterfactual history in the academy, the most eminently quotable example of such being E. H. Carr’s famous dismissal of alternate history as a mere “parlor game” in What Is History? Of course, Carr himself was a determinist who was solidly convinced that history could not have unfolded any other way (the “Morpheus school” of events, perhaps). Evans, on the whole, seems to fall into that camp as well, though as Sunstein points out, he “seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject.”

Part of Evans’s unease with counterfactual history is that in a way, it is itself overly deterministic. That is to say, a single changed historical variable might produce a wildly different result, and that history is contingent on the “great man” or, to quote a number of books, on that one fateful day, be it June 28, December 7, or September 11.

In his account, historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.”

But to consider history in any form is essentially to allow for the fact that events occurred instead of another subset of events. After all, if there was only one set of possibly outcomes, why would we still care or study such events today? Famed World War II historian Richard Overy wrote a book that outlined the conditions that led to Allied victory in the war. But even while attempting to show the precariousness on which the Allied cause rested, he racks up an impressive string of advantages: some significant economic superiority (more specifically, the “sheer speed and scale of American rearmament”), unity within and among the Allies, a demonstrable sense of moral righteousness, and even organizational differences (e.g., an Axis inability to make full use of their own resources and production capacity). The gulf between Axis and Allies, particularly by the end of the war, was massive. But to look solely at that ignores the vast struggle that led to that balance of power, and belies the fact that this large number of factors in the Allies’ favor still required several years just to regain the strategic initative, much less win the war.

History, of course, has a lively following today, and so too does counterfactual history. My undergraduate professor, Fred Smoler, has periodically taught a class since my senior year called “The Music of What Happens” (PDF, p. 72), which is an exploration in both historical and literary terms of the alternate histories that have been and are being written today. This is also a roundabout way of saying that not all counterfactual works lie squarely in the realm of “history” as we know it and statistical analysis. Often, the outlandish settings of alternate history fiction are merely a backdrop for some other story (but which serve as way to explore that setting). Robert Harris’s Fatherland and works of literature like Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union feature a noir-esque, hard-boiled detective narrative as a familiar means of operating in an otherwise-unfamiliar world. (Even other world-building fiction like China Miéville’s The City & the City use a detective story as the foreground plot.)

I will admit, though, that in an article of this length I was surprised not to find any reference to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which still stands as one of the great reasons for alternate history to exist. “Whig history” is the protestant/progressive tendency to view the present as a logical extension of the past, inexorably moving forwards towards a bright future, which represents merely another point on the same continuum.To quote Butterfield:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present … Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

The real problem with the whigs and the determinists is that they have denied the past any chance of their own agency. Instead, they characterize history as a series of preconceived steps that of course have brought us to this very moment. But the strength and appeal of counterfactual history is that it can restore a sense of contingency to historical actors, and to better understand the world as it was (and is): it was a series of choices to make, and the present is the result of those actions not chosen.

Different scenarios will have different utility to different thinkers: whether one cares about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or an Al Gore victory in 2000 or an industrial China in the sixteenth-century depends greatly on one’s interests and research and career and available free time. But as it sounds like Richard Evans eventually comes around to thinking, albeit unwittingly, even just by disagreeing with a counterfactual, you lend the scenario some degree of credence: things might have happened very differently, indeed. And while this likely is not the best of all possible worlds, one can easily imagine a world much worse.


Operation Tannenbaum, Part IV

It is now November 9 1940. The bitterness of the Battle for Switzerland is something that will live with all Swiss and those German soldiers who participated. Out of the 800,000 Swiss under arms on September 24, 120,000 did not reach the redoubt. Only 15,486 of these soldiers were taken prisoner. In fact, there are more French and Polish prisoners in the German laagers then there are Swiss!

The Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland.

Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Heeresgruppe C.

Guisan and his staff are secure in the Redoubt, with the Germans unable to penetrate the massive defense works. However, the Germans are rather unwilling to commit so many forces to the strategically irrelevant alpine region. In the areas at higher altitude, the first snow has fallen, tabling any large offensives until the spring of 1941.

No less than 20 divisions are in occupied Switzerland, and tensions between occupier and occupied are running extremely high. Just as in Czechoslovakia, all popular gatherings have been banned. Weapons and wireless sets owned by private citizens have been ordered to be turned into authorities, including hunting rifles.[1] Heeresgruppe C has not been redeployed to the eastern front for a Russian offensive, and Wilhelm von Leeb has established his headquarters in occupied Bern for the winter.

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Operation Tannenbaum, Part III

While the odds were against any sort of meaningful Swiss victory in the event of invasion, such a German offensive was equally unlikely in the early years of the war. By 1943, the possibility of a successful German invasion had dwindled to virtually nothing, as the Swiss Army had expanded and modernized to a point that would make Tannenbaum a suicidal mission. This begs the question: why, then, would Hitler ever have chosen to invade Switzerland? Let us proceed with our counterfactual under the following premises.

It is now September 15. The unrestricted bombing campaign authorized by Churchill four months ago has been relatively unsuccessful. Fewer than 25 percent of the bombs dropped are landing within five miles of their intended targets, and only 30 percent have landed in any built-up areas.[1] However, this has had an unintended benefit. Having disguised the few industrial plants manufacturing jewel bearings, the Germans were fairly certain of their security. However, in a truly ironic case, this ended up being more costly, as the plants have been disproportionately hit by the British bombs. Jewel bearings are a main component of bombsights, and without them, Hitler is reluctant to press his luck in the Battle of Britain, much less Operation Sealion.

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Operation Tannenbaum: Hitler’s Invasion of Switzerland

The military picture on the Franco-Swiss border, June 26, 1940.

France was defeated. So too were Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. Austria and Czechoslovakia had been incorporated into the Greater German Reich. Great Britain stood alone in her ‘splendid isolation,’ and the fascist regime of Francisco Franco held sway over the Iberian Peninsula. In June of 1940, all that remained, surrounded by enemies, was the Swiss Confederation.

Hitler called it a “pimple on the face of Europe.”[1] In the heady days of victory for the Third Reich, a move against the alpine republic seemed a great possibility – almost inevitable, even. Even before the Fall of France was made official, plans were being drawn up for ‘Operation Tannenbaum,’ the German invasion of Switzerland. Yet Hitler’s attention was soon drawn towards Britain, and eventually the plan fell by the wayside as he began focusing attention on his Bolshevik neighbor to the East.

But…what if? What if Hitler had decided that the conquest of that mountainous pimple was indeed worth the effort and manpower? What if Tannenbaum had been more than just idle words and an OKW plan? If Hitler had embarked on the ultimate folly, the results would have been disastrous for the Swiss – and the Nazis.

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The Bombing of Auschwitz

A consolidated B-24 Liberator of the 15th A.F. releases its bombs on the railyards at Muhldorf, Germany on 19 March 1945.

Via Blog Them Out of the Stone Age:

What if the Allies had bombed Auschwitz? That’s the counterfactual Mark Grimsley poses in his brief, but intriguing piece for World War II magazine (article at BTOSA). As he admits, “most ‘what if’ scenarios begin with a plausible rewrite of a historical event. The bombing of Auschwitz does not have this characteristic.” A strike on the death camps was not seriously discussed at high levels, much less considered a viable option.

It was certainly possible to launch such an attack:

The Auschwitz complex was well within range of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, based at Foggia, Italy … By the summer of 1944, escapees from Birkenau had supplied the Allies with detailed, accurate information about the facility. The crematoria and gas chambers could be readily identified in aerial photographs.

Owing to political considerations and the diversion of “considerable air support” that targeting the camps would require, a raid was never launched. Debate has raged for thirty years whether or not it was a moral imperative to attack the camps, but simply put, it was absolutely within Allied strategic air capabilities.

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Whither Arabic Science?

It’s widespread knowledge that many scientific and mathematical fundamentals can trace their lineage to the ‘golden age’ of the Arab world. Our numeral system, refinements in geometry and astrology, and other stepping-stones on the path to modern science originated in the Middle East between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Of course, this period of

Austin Dacey has written an article called “The Decline of the Decline of Arabic Science,” in which he attempts to address the ‘withering’ characterization of Arab-Islamic science. According to the traditional description, the cutting-edge nature of Islamic thinkers began to peter out, until the West overtook the East by leaps and bounds. Instead, he writes, there was nothing preordaining our current state of physical knowledge.

A sort of ‘Whig interpretation‘ thus explains the Arab ‘failure’ to discover what the West eventually did. Happenstance, coincidence, and chance are the real underpinnings of modern science (and this actually begins to make even more sense when considering the chaotic behavior of sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics). Which raises an even more intriguing question: in what other direction could science have gone?

The Coming Naval War with China?

There’s a new article making the usual rounds, from the Q1 2010 issue of Orbis. James Kraska’s “How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015” [abstract only] is definitely an interesting read; it’s one of those future/alternate histories examining, essentially, how we might get there.

Kraska hypothesizes a Chinese missile attack on the USS George Washington while “conducting routine patrols” off of China’s coast. China immediately denies all responsibility and in fact aids in the rescue of several hundred sailors, out of the original complement of 4,000. In addition to the international perception of China as uninvolved (much less the aggressor), the United States is blamed for the ecological disaster caused by the George Washington‘s nuclear propulsion system.

China’s ability to conduct such an operation is chalked up to a combination of naval spending cuts, the reassignment of “an entire generation” of officers to COIN and conventional desert warfare in the Middle East and central Asia, and “the environmentalists in charge of strategic U.S. oceans policy.”

‘Ridiculous’ is certainly the first word that comes to mind, and commentators like Thomas Ricks certainly don’t disagree, but there’s a small point to extract from Kraska’s article. His assumption that the increasing budget and growing naval aviation programs of the PLAN will directly challenge the USN for control of East Asia is a little much. He’s right on the nose, however, with the specter of asymmetrical naval warfare.

Robert Kaplan wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly a few years back, “How We Would Fight China.” It covers a lot of this in great detail. The psychological impact of asymmetry at sea is particularly telling – Kaplan notes that “the effect of a single Chinese cruise missile hitting a U.S. carrier…would be politically and psychologically catastrophic, akin to al-Qaeda’s attacks on the twin towers.” It’s hard to talk about China without getting melodramatic, apparently.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from all this would be: do we still need carriers at all?